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Language travel works

Time spent in an English native speaking country is generally seen as a valuable way to accelerate and broaden language learning. In 2019, over half a million English language learners came to study English in the UK. But is the experience worth the time and expense?

Wen-Ta Seng and a team of researchers from Taiwan set out to quantify just how much students gained from study abroad language programmes compared to students studying in their home country. Details of how they carried out their study are given in the box (opposite page).

Their overall finding was that study abroad programmes have a relatively large effect on language learning outcomes compared to studying at home. The overall effect size (g) came out at 0.9, which is generally considered to be a medium-large effect – it suggests that 82% of students studying in their home country would obtain lower test scores than any average student on a study abroad programmes.

To put this into a more general educational context, when John Hattie published the effect sizes of 252 influences on education, ranging from ‘classroom discussion’ to ‘homework’, he found the average effect size was 0.4. He called this the ‘hinge point’. When judging whether an intervention was making a positive difference it should have an effect size of 0.4 or more. By this standard, clearly study abroad programmes are having a positive effect on language learning.

Compared to previous studies on the effectiveness of study abroad language programmes, Tseng went further and examined the moderating influences on language gains, breaking down the overall effect into particular factors. Despite the strong overall effect, digging further into the data revealed a great deal of variation between different individual studies and even between different programmes within the same studies.

Tseng identified the following factors influencing the effectiveness of the individual study abroad programmes:

  • Program content
    • Some programmes focus on ormal language learning, with classes on specific linguistic structures and their application, while other courses are more content based, focusing on, for example, history and culture. Courses with more formal language teaching were more effective.
  • Type of residence
    • Staying with a host family was more effective than staying with other students in a dormitory or hostel.
  • Length of stay
    • The course lengths ranged from three weeks to 1.5 years. The sweet spot seems to be around three months – students who stayed on their course abroad for 13 weeks or more were more likely to outperform those studying at home.
  • Learner’s language level
    • Beginner level students appeared to make the greatest gains, followed by advanced students, then intermediate. Tseng suggests there may be a U-shaped relationship, with beginners making rapid gains that slow down at intermediate level, but accelerate as advanced students engage more with native speakers.

Tseng also broke down the effect of study abroad programmes in terms of the specific linguistic gains made by students. The largest effects were found in measures of speaking and re- ceptive vocabulary knowledge (g = 1.0). Positive effects were also seen on measures of writing, listening and pragmatic knowl- edge (g > 0.6).

Areas which showed no gains compared to domestic study programmes were grammar, reading and working memory.

Students in this study ranged in age from 10 to 33 years, and age did not influence the effectiveness of these study programmes.

Typical of education more generally, the effectiveness of a programme depends on how you choose to measure the outcome. In this study, measures of oral proficiency (predominantly ACTFL-OPI) showed greater gains than standardised tests and in-house assessments.

Although most of the data came from English language learners, almost half came from learners of other languages. By far the largest effect was for learners of French, Japanese and Spanish (g > 1.0) compared to a significant but more modest effect for English language learners (g = 0.6).

The gap between English language gains when compared to French, Japanese and Spanish may reflect the different outcome measures used. For example, there were higher scores on the widely used ACTFL-OPI compared to more demanding EFL tests, such as TOEFL, which assess listening, writing and reading, as well as speaking.

All in all, Tseng’s study shows that studying abroad can provide a boost to language learning compared to studying at home, and highlights factors to consider for both the students and language schools.

REFERENCE

  • Tseng, W-T, Liu, Y-T, Hsu, Y-T and Chu, H-C (2021) ‘Revisiting the effectiveness of study abroad language programmes: A multi- level meta-analysis’ Language Teaching Research https://doi. org/10.1177/1362168820988423
Image courtesy of NAASSOM AZEVEDO ON UNSPLASH
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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